Four Quartets, Bath Theatre Royal

TIME fascinates us. It has fascinated philosophers and scientists, mathematicians, poets and playwrights for centuries. It particularly fascinated the poet and Nobel laureate TS Eliot – and nowhere was that fascination more powerfully expressed than in Four Quartets.

Everything about this masterpiece in four movements is preoccupied with time – “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”

The poems are wonderful to read and even more wonderful when recited by an actor with a marvellous command of colour and cadence and character and rhythm. They are complex and their meaning is not always obvious – Eliot himself said: “the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.”

In this powerful and mesmerising solo performance, Ralph Fiennes invests them with an emotional and psychological depth that brings their twists and turns, their plateaux and streams, their sunny gardens and shadowy rooms to vivid, perplexing, provocative life.

Hildegard Bechtler’s starkly understated set makes no attempt to be the Cotswold manor house of Burnt Norton, the golden stone village of East Coker, the bleak outcrops of the Dry Salvages or the religious community of Little Gidding, but Fiennes inhabits these places as he inhabits the words with vignettes of life through time, from the Breughelesque rustic wedding to the clouds of world war.

As a feat of memory, the performance is extraordinary of course, but Fiennes is an accomplished and multi-award-winning actor with plenty of experience of solo shows – last year he gave the premiere of David Hare’s monologue Beat The Devil at the Bridge Theatre.

What is most striking and powerful is how he seems to suspend time – the recital (surely the right word for Four Quartets) lasts about 70 minutes, but time stands still, accelerates, slows down, then races and then stands still again. And at the end, a long, long silence, and everyone is holding their breath as if it is not only Ralph Fiennes and TS Eliot that have stopped, but time itself.

Photographs of Ralph Fiennes by Matt Humphrey

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